I’ve been sorting my bookshelves out, culling and returning books. For years I have organized spines by colour, but a change of mood saw me rearrange everything thematically. It was there in the new non-fiction section I discovered that alongside more fashion/design/photography books than is sensible for flatting, I also own a massive horde of books on writing. Despite a lot of chafe, there are some real gems on my bookshelf, concerning both the technical and holistic side of scribbling.
As I always enjoy peeping at other people’s ‘professional’ bookshelves – “Oh so that’s how designers keep their souls intact!” – I thought I would share my favourite books on writing with you.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life : Anne Lamott
The advice is simple – just do it bird by bird. One little part at a time. This is super advice for your choice of horrid essays, magazine articles that don’t research themselves, poems (stanza by stanza) or the great American novel. The book is divided into short chapters with a view to encourage clarity, energy and fearlessness in your writing. Lamott is also a very funny woman, who has a charmingly deft way of characterising everyone she knows; from random women she meets while dress shopping, to her son Sam.
A Writer’s Book of Days : Judy Reeves
A Writer’s Book Of Days (subtitled ‘A Spirited Companion & Lively Muse for the Writing Life‘) is a yearlong program of sorts. Each date has a specific topic suggestion, accompanied by thoughts on writer’s block, the quirks and idiosyncrasies of published authors, and expectation management. Despite the title (and naff design) I feel Book Of Days is more on the practical rather than spiritual side of things. I have to admit, hefty helpings of Miller and Kerouac helped give it credibility to me as a literary snob. If you’re stuck, don’t know where to start or just need a daily kick in the pants, this is a good book to pick up.
Ogilvy on Advertising : David Ogilvy
To give you an idea of this book’s age, the author’s picture depicts Ogilvy thoughtfully puffing on a pipe inside his office. No matter, despite the age of the book, the lessons are timeless. Ogilvy lays out the foundations of good advertising, laying out the basics of salesmanship and how writing must work to achieve the end goal, profit. For example, sex sells, but only if it’s relevant to the product – cook tops and nudity don’t mix. The ads featured are shockingly outmoded, but are wonderful to learn from (and look at – think lots of eighties boobs).
Need proof that Ogilvy’s rules still apply? Andy Maslen has picked out elements of Ogilvy’s wisdom that work for the web.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within : Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down The Bones focuses on writing as a spiritual practice (Goldberg is a Zen Buddhist) but goes down nicely, like a cup of Matcha green tea. My favourite chapter is on Composting – the process of composting your thoughts, letting the good stuff eventuate from the pile of matter. This notion is something I refer to almost daily since I first read the book a few year ago (you can read it here for free). Another thing this book taught me was to be specific. Learn the names of things and use them fastidiously; orecchiette not pasta, affenpinscher not puppy.
On Writing : Stephen King
Who knew old King was a coke-head? Not I, but that’s just one part of King’s story. A biographical tale mixed in with advice, On Writing is an inspiring tale of how you can make it from nothing, lose it all and come back again. The practical side of the book is truly wonderful, you’re learning from a master who will give you the blade to sharpen your dialogue as pointy as vampire fangs and cut excellent deals once you gain the attention of publishers. My copy is a trashy little trade paperback, and as you can see from the photographs, it’s been well loved.